Researchers at the University of Tennesee found that children will consume larger amounts of food – and thus more calories – when they are served larger portions than normal. They will not stop eating when they have eaten the normal amount; they continue eating until the food is gone.

The study went like this: if we give children two different types of soft snacks and give them different sizes – one twice as large as the other – would the kids stop eating when they are satisfied? To find out, the researchers gave children snacks at different times over a month-long period to see if they would notice a difference in the snack sizes.

The two snacks compared were applesauce and chocolate pudding. The small applesauce provided 65 calories; the small chocolate pudding came in at 176 calories. The larges provided 129 calories and 357 calories, respectively. The small serving was approximately the size of a standard pudding cup, about 150 grams; the large is about the size of two normal sized pudding cups. The kids were served in bowls, rather than prepackaged containers to mask the relative sizes of the snacks.

Researchers conducted a study comparing both lower energy-density foods and higher energy-density foods and found that it didn’t actually matter which snacks the kids ate, it mattered on how large the snack was. They didn’t find that children ate differently between the two flavors – the relative consumption between applesauce and chocolate pudding was the same. The finding that larger portions led to larger caloric intake supported previous studies about portion sizes and entree sizes.

The researchers believe that because applesauce and chocolate pudding were fairly equally accepted by the children in the study, care takers to could take advantage of the fact that children enjoy applesauce enough to not notice that chocolate pudding is absent. This allows caretakers to control caloric intake at that point. Since larger portion size led to the larger caloric intake, caretakers should make sure that they are serving appropriate portions, otherwise, the children could be consuming large numbers of calories without being aware of them. 357 calories is a pretty good sized snack – more like a breakfast.

As a nutritionist, I was a little surprised to find that kids didn’t seem to alter their intake when the pudding and applesauce snacks were twice as large as normal. It might have to do with their hunger levels at the point that they get to eat a snack. It might also have to do with our training to “clean our plates.” My mom taught me that. The better thing is to teach a kid to take less when serving herself or to save half of the food for later. I think that’s what I’d recommend to a kid I eat with: if you can’t finish it, wrap it, you can eat it later. (This obviously doesn’t work for all kids and all situations)

The application to a culinary expert: serve smaller portions. I really enjoy rich foods, so I try to eat less of it. Of course, anytime you add a rich food to your intake for the day, your overall intake is higher — over time, this will lead to weight gain. My fix: restrict my calories when I am not enjoying my food – such as at breakfast. Sorry, breakfast lovers, but for me, breakfast on weekdays is just a way to kick-start my metabolism.